With live shows and events at the mercy of a mercurial virus, the New Zealand music business has been warped into a frustrating limbo. So how are local musicians dealing with it all?
Alongside Covid-19, 2020 will be forever known as the year of “the pivot”; that dreaded term that was once isolated to the Friends episode where Ross tries to move a couch. While it’s now become a universal corporate-speak cliché that means “adapt” – typically to an online operation – it woefully simplifies what must be, for many, an immensely complex process.
Musicians are a great example. What does it mean to pivot in an era when a faceless menace looms over your industry, threatening the normal mediums and restricting live performances – often the very core of your appeal?
Every New Zealand musician or band I asked was doing something different, but they all shared the same frustrating tale: they had their biggest ever international tour scheduled earlier this year, and Covid-19 came along and cancelled everything.
It’s an encouraging testament to the high and sparkling wave that home-grown music was riding earlier this year, with fervent overseas audiences clamouring for a taste of New Zealand talent. But it also serves as a reminder of the dependence musicians still have on touring and playing live music to international audiences to make a living.
“It was disappointing, I’m not going to lie,” says Gavin Correia of Jupiter Project – a musical collaboration that was scheduled to play in Europe in April before it was cancelled in late March.
“We were super gutted because it had been in the works for about six months or more and it was a great way to finish of what had been a great 2019 for us.”
Being confined to New Zealand, let alone a house, is a dilemma for artists who make a lot of their revenue from overseas shows. Even now, with borders shut and no chance of international bookings going ahead, it’s a massive part of the business gone. So what could they do?
“You can’t change it,” Correia says. “You can’t make this virus disappear, there’s nothing you or me can do about it. So you just try and control what you can control and what we can do is write and record.”
“It was actually good, it forced out a lot of creativity,” says Marty Rich, the other side of the duo. “We both have home studios and it was about learning how to engage with our audiences that we were missing out on seeing. So we started figuring out these live streams with DJ sets through Instagram and how to keep our audience entertained and connected.”
Without a manager or a record label, the pair are their own bosses – it was entirely on them to manage their own recording, partnerships and marketing in a fundamentally transformed landscape. So during the first lockdown, they learned how to incorporate new software like OBS into their production and secured sponsorship from JBL to livestream a regular Friday night show.
“It was pretty amazing production off the bat,” says Correia. “It had two different DJ sets, an interview, new releases. It was something you could tune in for a wine after work. Something to keep you busy and give you hope.”
Because of near global restrictions on gatherings, the kind of high-energy dance festival music the duo usually played was a hard sell with most of their fans confined to their bedrooms. So they changed it up, creating slower songs that listeners could enjoy in a home setting.
Now, six months on, all that production time is yielding results, with a series of new singles due to be released over the coming months.
They’ve also got live shows booked throughout the summer, but the re-emergence of Covid-19 has cast a shadow over the live music scene and shown just how easily plans can be derailed in the event of another outbreak.
“There’s uncertainty for Kiwi musicians, not knowing where the future may lie,” says Rich. “There’s a lot of tentative dates and ‘weather dates’, but it’s very hard for someone to solidly confirm anything and we understand that and we are working with the promoters now.
“It’s about putting on a different hat and thinking as an entrepreneur and not just a creative. What are those parts of my business that I can adapt and grow? Do I need to increase my social following? Do I need to do some comedy skits, or artwork or a virtual show? Something that’s going to make people talk or bring people to the table in different ways.”
With the technology now available, livestreaming may be the music industry’s version of a “pivot” – an effective way for certain artists to perform online and earning income in a pandemic stricken world. But is it a viable solution for all musicians?
Michael Cathro from Dunedin band Ha The Unclear doesn’t think so.
“I did a few solo livestreams during lockdown,” he says. “I don’t see a way of monetising it, to be honest.
“Playing those live streams can be so dry. You don’t get that performer-audience feedback, it’s just one-directional.”
The band was booked for a tour around Australia supporting the Soaked Oats earlier this year, as well as European tour starting in September. With both cancelled, it’s just a case of using the time to write, record and prepare for when the industry is once again free to play live shows.
“Both lockdowns stunted our ability to get together as a group write and record,” says the band’s bass player Paul. “So it became a matter of creating in our bedrooms, emailing ideas back and forth. Technology certainly helps, but being in the same room makes such a difference.
“As streaming platforms pay very little, our best form of income is through live shows.”
Yet even for artists who have major domestic tours booked, the unpredictability of it all means that they’re forced to diversify and find other opportunities.
Tia Kelly is the guitarist for acclaimed singer-songwriter Benee, who had a major three-month international tour booked from April to August this year. With that scrapped, it meant the loss of a full-time job and major income stream.
“It’s been pretty drastic, that’s for sure,” Kelly says. “There’s been a lot of changes within my life and within the music scene that I’m involved with.
“I think we’re all trying to hustle our way through this weird shit that’s going on all around us.”
Although she had a spell experimenting with livestreams during lockdown, she and fellow Benee band member Dylan Clark mostly used time to organise an online competition. Called Bubble Bop, it was open to aspiring artists to submit pieces of music composed in under 24 hours, and then have it judged by established New Zealand musicians.
“I felt like in lockdown, for artists especially, there was all this pressure to create and I felt it was also a little bit overwhelming, having all this time and the pressure to make music kind of drove me a bit insane.
“So the idea of Bubble Bop was to put constraints around the idea of creating and putting in a sort of deadline. There was $1000 for each winner, and short feedback from different industry figures.”
As New Zealand approached level one after the first lockdown, there was a surge in demand for live shows as jubilant people revelled in their new-found freedoms. Gigs and concerts were sold out and New Zealand acts were suddenly headlining shows usually allocated to their international counterparts.
This time round the mood is different. Kelly says people are more wary, and there isn’t such a frantic demand for tickets. Although she’s due to play an eight-date New Zealand tour with Benee in October, she says it could easily be postponed if Covid-19 is still present in the community.
“Right now the tour is pretty 50/50 with the current dates. We’ll all in a bit of a strange state, right; no one really knows and people are a little bit nervous.”
However, she’s confident that whatever happens with the virus, the constraints will invariably push the industry in a new direction. Along with the emphasis on New Zealand music, it’s bound to allow something fresh and vivid to bloom.
“I kind of like how it seems like everything’s a bit uncertain. Who knows what lies within that? It might be like the first time the music scene really evolves – because it has to!
“I feel like we’re at a period where something new can come and that excites me.”
For her, it’s about diversifying and driving that change from within. Which is why instead of committing solely to playing music, she’s starting a company that promotes women within the arts.
“It’s called She. I’ll promote different projects within the arts made my women and non-binary, and put on shows with female line-ups. It’s also going to be a space for other things like visual arts, dancing, everything within the arts, so hopefully it will have a flow of content and it will be a space with women to make and create and showcase.”
What about the virtual streaming? Does she think the industry will evolve to incorporate that as a main medium for musicians and artists to share their work?
“I appreciate every livestream I see, but I’m really adamant and stubborn that you can’t really replace a live event,” she says. “It’s just everything. There’s an energy. There’s a vibe. There’s nothing like being in a room with a certain amount of people and watching a band.”
It’s a sentiment that she noticed after the first lockdown, when people were allowed to once again come together and enjoy live music in a social setting.
“Every gig was packed. I remember looking around and it was very loving and very grateful and everyone was having a great time. It kind of made me realise how important live shows are how much they bring people together.
“There’s an essence to it that you can’t replace.”